Bryson Tiller’s hotly anticipated second album comes to us as a welcome surprise. Does "True to Self" go above and beyond, or does Pen Griffey swing and miss?
Bryson Tiller’s 2015 debut album T R A P S O U L is one of the more confounding success stories in recent R&B history. A shadowy figure with only a mixtape and a few tracks on SoundCloud to his name, Tiller attracted enough attention for his breakout single “Don’t” and co-signs by the likes of Timbaland and Drake to ink a record deal and release an album that sold one million records in just over six months.
Less than two years later, Tiller has unleashed his sophomore album True To Self for awaiting audiences. Has lightning struck twice for the man known to his fans as Pen Griffey, or has he mired himself in the dreaded sophomore slump?
If you had boil down True to Self, and Tiller himself, to a single word, it’s spare. As a vocalist, he has a nasal warble and a limited range. Occasionally, he breaks out into a rapping style that remains straight-ahead and stylistically unadventurous, but never without a good sense of rhythm. The trick to his success is that he offers a scaled-back and intimate vibe. Compared to peers such as Tory Lanez, PartyNextDoor, Roy Woods, or Drake, he sticks to a conservative sonic palette, but has a penchant for taking simple gestures and making them seem like much more than they are.
Production-wise, what makes True To Self stand out from the music of Tiller’s peers is that aforementioned sense of intimacy and spartan arrangement. Employing an army of skilled producers (including T-Minus, WondaGurl, Boi-1da, Frank Dukes and Illmind), Tiller shies away from the more woozy, synth-led sound of his debut in favor of a blend of trap drums and 90s-era R&B instrumentation and samples.
The most frequent recurring contributor is Nes, a newcomer who Tiller has credited as a major influence on the writing process for True To Self. His stuttering sample chops on tracks like “Don’t Get Too High,” or his ornamental collage on “Self-Made” have a picturesque sensibility that perfectly compliments Tiller’s lyrical sensibilities.
Songwriting is the trick when it comes to Tiller; almost any rapper can stumble on a catchy hook or two, and that he’s able to provide so many memorable moments is no small feat. One of Tiller’s greatest strengths is his attention to detail; anyone looking for bust-out laughing punchlines are going to have to scour a different album. For the most part the majority of True to Self deals strictly with the romantic interludes and the jealousy of “haters.”
But with his fondness for curating such sentimental backdrops, Tiller casually makes allusions to things that separate his material from the vagaries that continue to plague the songwriting of those against whom he is often measured. When Tiller insists his song isn’t a “side-nigga anthem,” you can tell he’s in on the jokes made about his perception as a saccharine emo rapper. At the same time, he is more than committed, openly expressing judgement on his subjects’ activities and venting about them lashing out at him later. It’s especially true on songs like single “Somethin Tells Me,” where, over a disorienting swirl he proceeds to describe a relationship that constantly unravels despite his best efforts. A simple amount of specific information is all it takes to make a run-of-the-mill breakup record Tiller’s unique possession.
One flaw of True to Self is Tiller’s tendency to play it safe, though there are a few deviations from the formula worth note. “Money Problems / Benz Truck” initially starts off surprisingly aggressive, sounding like a hypebeast version of a Young Dolph-style fight record before segueing into more traditional Tiller and that works to great effect. However, the tropical vibes of “Run Me Dry” don’t suit the album’s mood, despite the fact that his performance at the pop-dancehall style isn’t entirely out of his ballpark to surprise.
Generally what works best about True to Self is that deviations in mood and tempo are built with expert anticipation. In fact, the sequencing of this album is so near seamless that when True To Self comes to a track which doesn’t manage to fit perfectly, you notice it instantly. So while the transition from the aforementioned “Benz Truck” to “Set It Off” is immaculate, “You Got It” goes from dark and gloomy to just feeling like an ill-thought dirge to kill the mood. That there are such few missteps however says a lot about the consideration that Tiller’s brought on this album, especially considering the record is loaded to the brim with tracks, skits and interludes that for most would threaten to result in a bloated and excessive project.
All in all, Bryson Tiller takes bold steps in the right direction on his sophomore album. Demonstrating a growing confidence as an artist who can occasionally challenge himself to escape his comforts but spends more and more time honing his strengths for the benefit of his records, True to Self not only fulfills the promise of T R A P S O U L, but manages to deliver beyond expectations. No doubt fans who have already been converted to following Pen Griffey will already find a new slew of hits ready and waiting, though skeptics might find even more to chew on than they’d expect.